# 18 Juliana Spahr: The Incinerator

Med utgangspunkt i sin egen oppvekst i Chillicothe, Appalachia skriver Spahr i dette diktet om stedet og klassetilhørighetens betydning for det selvbiografiske.

Juliana Spahr har gitt ut en rekke bøker, senest The Transformation. Sammen med Jena Osman redigerer hun Chain. Samlaget ga i høst ut Alle med lungar kopla saman.

Book, 38 pages, 200 copies. In English.

Price: 70 NKR.


Stan Apps on The Incineratior:

I am very pleased with Juliana Spahr’s poem “The Incinerator” which was published in the first issue of Lana Turner. (I recommend buying this magazine to read Spahr’s poem and also Joshua Clover’s brilliant “Terror Flu.”) The poem (Spahr’s) dramatizes the confusion caused by the fact that class is relational:

“For if we were middle class on the block, and lower class in the nation, we were upper class in the world, or in other words, the terms were so relationally slippery they were hard to define.”


“As I write this other stories keep popping up and I keep abandoning them: my current income puts me in one of the top income percentiles of the world yet I continue to think of myself as broke.
As I write this other stories keep popping up and I keep abandoning them: I wanted to end this piece with a scene of metaphoric group sex where all the participants were place names, but the minute I attempted to do this I got bogged down in questions of which places would penetrate and which places would be penetrated.”

Assumedly this problem is why Spahr describes a mystical sexual union between herself and her hometown (Chillicothe, Ohio) as a lesbian sex-act. Which is rather Whitmanesque. But mostly I like the declarative sentences:

“As I write this other stories keep popping up and I keep abandoning them: she was probably saying something about how she did not see her life in the static and unhappy way working class lives were presented in books and movies.
As I write this other stories keep popping up and I keep abandoning them: shame about being working class transformed into claims of authenticity from her generation to my generation.”

I very much like how these sentences stand for themselves, how I feel no need to comment on them. This is a powerful appeal of Spahr’s poetry, a declarative presentation of insights that border on (but are not quite) obvious.

A key insight:

“As I write this other stories keep popping up and I keep abandoning them: wanting to talk about class, I kept talking only about gender.”

The other writer who I admire for her ability to write about class is Anne Boyer, whose self-presentation is less hard-edged and factual and more imperiled (with the sepia tinges of melodrama that implies) than Spahr’s. In other words, Spahr writes like a sort of Wittgenstein of the nearly obvious, with a professorial eye for the fact, a confidence in data-as-composition. Whereas Boyer writes like a woman in trouble, the poete maudite miscast in “Perils of Pauline” or perhaps in a pre-code Barbara Stanwyck flick. They are very complementary poets for me. In both, the confusion where gender trips over class (or vice-versa) is dramatized. In both of these poets’ work there is a sort of–not exactly a dialectic–but a veering back and forth between categorizations based on gender and those based on class. It becomes clear, in their works, that these are separate mutually-obfuscating rhetorics for describing the same situations in quite similar ways (and both relying on tenuous solidarities, on sympathies just-fictitious-enough to be unreliable). And for some reason, perhaps because of the dissonance, the real significance of class as a concept becomes clearer as a result of this veering. As Boyer writes in her piece “by Anne Boyer” (just published on delirious hem):

I could say I am a feminist poet because I write for one reason: the landlords insisted we had heat when the tenants knew we were freezing. It was sixteen degrees, and we tried everything to get warm like burning the signs the landlords had written for us: ‘the heat is on.’

I am only writing this now for one reason – the power grab of infantilism. Kathy Acker wrote as a character Erica Jong and she said ‘I would rather be a baby than have sex.’

I remember the clip art of roses from the ‘cycle of abuse’ but the rest of us could die trying. Peril is our essentialism. You could sit in the office and the things they would do to you if they noticed you. There were so many things done in offices. Men and a few affluent women were there and didn’t mind anything: the thing about class is that it is natural. In the offices if they are not the bosses even the old women are girls.”

Unlike Spahr, whose academic career took her from Appalachia to Berkeley (“Incinerator” studies the social-class implications of this move), Boyer insists on the fact that “I would like to have educated myself out of this but do not have much of an education. ” Instead she writes:

“I was Rimbaud. There was no denying my figure.

My figure was exactly the opposite of intelligence. It was a dumb figure, a series of rotating circles, like some robot built to avoid being mistaken for a boy. No one seemed to understand how it was I had come to look so stupid.”

I love Boyer’s melodrama, partially because I recognise her use of melodrama as the pagentry through which a grain of horrible truth is made utterable and given its appropriate pomp and significance. This melodrama is, to me, an honorable part of the avant-garde tradition, passed on from the underage, overwrought Rimbaud through Acker’s disturbing combination of simplistic emotional extremes with complex sarcasm. Boyer is a bit warmer and less menacing than either of these predecessors, but she captures the brutally faux-naif tone that they had in common, a tone that somehow dramatizes how the intellect is punished by emotions and anxieties, a tone of struggling with abjection. To the extent that abjection involves the internalization of damaging associations about gender and class, this melodrama is lacerating. But it is also comic, as those ideas which are wrong are rendered with a laughable simplicity–a writing in which threats become toys.

I also love Spahr’s drier attention to accuracy (except when she is questioning the details of one of my poems–that scares me.) In Spahr, attention to accuracy invariably leads to dramatized uncertainty, as the limits of available facts are reached. The limit to facts in Spahr is the inability to trust any framing structure as other than arbitrary. Instead, Spahr wants to use available facts to write about or understand all lives, a wish frustrated by the different implications of a variety of jostling contexts. Each time certain facts are set beside each other, a narrative relating these facts is created, and this narrative is always too narrow for Spahr. She writes:

“While thinking about my mother’s assertion that we were middle class, while thinking about ‘Radcliffe and Guatemalan Women,’ while thinking about women’s employment in the countries with the highest percentage of women in poverty, while thinking about how the manipulation of trade barriers by the US government has adversely affected women across many different nations, while thinking about how at the same time the global economy empowers some women and disempowers others, I was trying to think about what sort of vision one needed to have in order to keep one eye on the neighborhood and then one eye on the nation and then yet one more eye on the world.”

As I said, I find Spahr and Boyer to be complementary poets, poets who have expressed something valuable about social class. The way gender and class cover and conceal one another, and the way these poets root through this concealment, somehow enables them to write more profoundly about class issues than any male poets currently do. Is it because the conflicting narratives of solidarity which we call “gender” and “class” collide to produce an image of social specificity? Or is it because, in the moment when these narratives erase each other, the desperation of specificity is voiced? It is scary that we care about the idea of caring about each other so much–and so abstractly–this abstract caring seems unlikely to achieve reciprocity, i.e. this care is likely to be inadequate should we ourselves need to be cared for, just as it has been inadequate when others needed it. In other words, that social class here, now is dramatized as a non-existent safety net, which we try to substitute for with emotional activity. . . feeling ideas as a substitute for trusting institutions.


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